“Don’t believe what any teams are saying about their interest in Lamar Jackson right now. There’s a lot of bulls*** that goes on in our football business. It’s a business of liars.”
That was one of the first thoughts that rolled off the tongue of a seasoned NFL agent on Wednesday, when asked to walk through a scenario: If Lamar Jackson had hired you the day after Deshaun Watson landed his fully guaranteed deal with the Cleveland Browns in March of 2022, how would you have handled the last year of negotiations between the Baltimore Ravens and their quarterback? And more to the point, how would you have navigated this month, following the Ravens’ application of the non-exclusive franchise tag to the former league MVP, which allows Jackson to solicit a contract offer from another team?
We posed the scenario to three high-end NFL agents. All have extensive experience negotiating significant starting quarterback deals or representing star players under a franchise tag. All three have experience with both. All have strong opinions on the sputtering extension negotiations between Jackson and the Ravens, which have languished for two years and may now rest in the hands of whichever team (if any) chooses to extend him a contract offer in the coming days.
While there have been varying accounts of what has occurred between Jackson and the Ravens over the expanse of their contract talks, two realities do not appear to be in dispute: That Watson’s deal with the Browns has weighed heavily on the negotiations between Baltimore and its franchise quarterback; and that the lack of an experienced agent between the two parties has led to some predictable hurdles along the way.
With that in mind, we asked the three agents to share their thoughts on four key aspects of Jackson’s current situation.
Starting with …
The Deshaun Watson contract and an ensuing value disparity
All three agents agreed that one piece of information that has been repeatedly flagged as an issue in the negotiation is unquestionably true: The Deshaun Watson deal is the wedge between the two parties.
Unlike most elite quarterback deals that reset negotiating expectations in relatively expected increments, Watson’s deal with the Browns was an outlier like nothing the league had seen, shattering norms in guarantees and structure. For elite quarterbacks moving forward, it would be a measuring stick in future deals. For teams, it would be pegged as an absurd outlier from a desperate franchise.
By September, when the Ravens reportedly had advanced a $250 million deal with $133 million guaranteed, it would already be seen as a potentially insurmountable hurdle.
“With Lamar, if they got to that $250 million deal over five years but it was only $130 million guaranteed, that’s their view of him,” one agent said. “At that point, the nuance would have been in the negotiating details. Can we cut off a year from the deal so he gets to free agency sooner? Can we get a no franchise tag and a no transition tag [clause]? We’re talking about mechanisms that allow him to make even more money and get to the market soon again. There’s always ways with an agent to skin a cat. … But when it comes to how Lamar valued himself, what we think as his agent doesn’t mean a f***ing thing. What you think in the media doesn’t mean a f***ing thing. What other players think doesn’t mean a f***ing thing. A player values himself a certain way and sometimes that’s the only way he can see. Eventually, that’s what he’s being blinded by. Lamar doesn’t want other people’s opinions or perspectives on his value. He has made that clear for five years.”
Added another agent, “The last thing you want to do in a situation like this is back a team into a corner, where you’re so far apart that you’re basically just saying ‘no’ and asking them to negotiate against themselves. Owners aren’t going to react well to that. Especially if you’re repeatedly asking them to do that. And with players, their ego is important in negotiations. You never want them to feel like they’re eating a s*** sandwich during the process. It makes them feel bad about the negotiation and the job they did as players. There has to be some flexibility in the process.
"If you are backing an owner into a corner or the team is trying to make a player eat a s*** sandwich, things will shut down in those situations. We have to go through the process of feeling out what each side is willing to budge on — both the team and your player. If the answer is nothing on both sides, it’s going to break down. Did anyone budge in this situation? Did only one side budge? Whatever happened, it definitely wasn’t enough flexibility from the team or Lamar or both, or they would have made more progress than they did.”
How an agent would have been helpful with the franchise tag
At some point, an agent recognizes a gap that can’t be bridged. The difference between $250 million guaranteed and $133 million guaranteed is a wide enough margin that it’s unlikely to be overcome. All of the agents agreed that once it became apparent that the two sides hadn’t made significant strides by February, it should have triggered preparations for each potential franchise tag. Most especially the non-exclusive tag because that would have represented an opportunity to dial in Jackson’s market by gauging outside interest.
This is an important point in the process when the agents all pointed out the obvious: Their services and experience would have been extremely helpful to Jackson at the NFL scouting combine because that’s when they would have discreetly engaged with other teams to sort out his potential options.
“You tamper,” one agent said. “You meet with as many teams as you can and you tamper like a motherf***er. The teams that need a quarterback and are interested will be like, ‘OK, what do we have to do? I’m all ears. Yes, we want him. Now what do we have to do?’ Really, that’s the key [with Jackson’s non-exclusive tag]. That’s where the problem is created with not having an agent. All this stuff is back-channel deals getting done by people who know how to do it.
"You’d start with an overall group that is interested in Lamar, then that group gets smaller because some don’t want to do the contract, some don’t want to give up the trade compensation, and some the player doesn’t want to live in a certain place or play for a certain team. By the end of it, you have a smaller group that you know you can get something done with. Once he’s tagged, you’re already down the road.”
“A deal like this becomes an intimate, one-on-one private conversation with owners,” another agent added. “Specifically, owners and only the power person in the building. It doesn’t involve the pro director or even the GM in most situations — this is about talking to the people who make the final decision. That’s why when you’re talking about a contract at this level, you’re really only able to hire seven or eight or 10 [agents] who can do this kind of deal. There’s only a few that have the owners on speed dial, or that go to the owners' meetings, or have dinners with these owners in their private clubs, or that have sat with them on their yachts. There’s only a few agents that have the gravitas to sit with them and talk about the type of human being and player they are getting in these kinds of deals. Lamar is an incredible kid. You need an agent who can convey that [to an owner] in a situation like this.”
The third agent added that there’s an educational element of the non-exclusive tag that sometimes needs to be conveyed to players who haven’t gone through the process yet. Not only the reality that a player can sign only one offer sheet, but that sometimes there are situations where teams won’t extend any contract simply out of the belief that it’s going to be matched.
“I would have talked to Lamar about the reality of what’s coming,” the agent said. “First, I would have told him it’s extremely difficult to get a club to give me an offer sheet as a non-exclusive franchise player because it becomes extremely public. Secondly, teams convince themselves that the Ravens would just match it and they don’t want to do the work for another team. And then thirdly, the team that signs the offer sheet has it count against their salary cap for the week [during the period of time when the Ravens can decide whether to match it]. Some teams just don’t want to do that.”
Is there collusion against Lamar Jackson?
When the Browns traded for Watson and finalized his fully guaranteed five-year, $230.5 million extension, it didn’t take long for critics to hammer the moment as an act of desperation. Oddly, some of those same critics pointed at Lamar Jackson and alleged that it must be an act of collusion when teams didn’t immediately state their intentions to lavish him with a fully guaranteed deal — or preemptively suggested they wouldn’t be pursuing him at all. It’s curious to bash the Watson deal but then also bash the teams that don’t follow in the footsteps of it.
All three agents had varying opinions about the league and whether there is overt collusion taking place in the wake of Watson’s deal. But all three agreed on a few points that are tied to Jackson’s viability when it comes to a fully guaranteed deal. Among them: Some of the teams that preemptively bowed out of interest in Jackson are likely lying; other teams aren’t interested in Jackson because of the risk of guaranteeing a massive sum to a quarterback with an injury history; and Jackson doesn’t have the leverage or freedom that helped pave the way to the league’s previous fully guaranteed quarterback deals (established by Kirk Cousins and Watson).
“Some of these teams, Atlanta and Miami and some others, they have to say publicly that they’re not interested,” one agent said of franchises preemptively removing themselves from interest in Jackson. “They have to say it. If you’re Miami and you think Lamar is an upgrade, you can’t go after him publicly and sign him to an offer sheet and then when the Ravens match it, turn around and say, ‘Hey, Tua [Tagovailoa], we really love you.’”
And the aspect of colluding against another fully guaranteed deal?
“Let’s be clear — these are billionaire owners,” an agent said. “They go to the same places. They go to the same country clubs. They buy their yachts from the same people. They speak to each other on a regular basis about multiple things that are mainly business. They are very incestuous by nature because they’re the 31 most powerful owners in the world as it relates to pro football in America.
"Lamar Jackson has missed one third of his games in the last two years. And he is a player where the indication has been very clear that he’s expecting the biggest contract in NFL history and for it to be fully guaranteed. That expectation takes your fraternity of 31 owners down to maybe none. It’s not easy to pay $250 million to a quarterback that’s been hurt. It’s not easy to pay it to one that’s never been hurt. If he gets hurt, that kind of salary is a franchise-killer for most teams. That’s the argument that goes on behind closed doors. Does that make it collusion? No. And oh, by the way, you have to give up two first-round picks just for the right to spend that money.”
Added another agent, “People are talking like it’s collusion that Lamar might not get a fully guaranteed deal, but think about the two quarterbacks that did. When Watson got his, there were four teams involved and ultimately Cleveland did the fully guaranteed deal after they were told they were out of the running. That means out of four teams that were all coming to the table with offers, only the Browns were willing to give Deshaun a fully guaranteed deal, and they only did it after they were told that they were out of it. The Browns believed that the fully guaranteed deal was their only option to getting him. And that was on top of Deshaun having the control of a no-trade clause and having sat out an entire year of football. Think about all of those factors that had to go into that one situation.
"Then in the other, with Kirk Cousins, he played through two franchise tags to get to free agency to get his fully guaranteed deal from the Vikings, and he only did a three-year deal for less money than the New York Jets would have given him. So in the history of quarterbacks, the only two that got fully guaranteed deals either had a massive amount of leverage or played through two tags to get to free agency.
"Lamar doesn’t have the leverage of Watson and hasn’t played through two tags like Cousins. He’s under a franchise tag and hasn’t shown he will force a trade. So where’s the leverage to get a fully guaranteed deal?”
What would an agent suggest now?
Unless a massive and somehow unmatchable offer sheet is extended for Jackson, he will have to contemplate playing out the 2023 season under the $32.4 million tag. If that’s the case, all three agents said they would consider some avenues to compromising. Each one, (in simplified terms):
Agent 1: “We fight for a fully guaranteed contract, or we can fight for it and settle on a contract that is practically guaranteed. Let’s just say it’s a four-year deal for $200 million. For the sake of making the math easy, let’s just say the salary is 50, 50, 50, 50 over the four years. The first $50 million will be fully guaranteed at signing. The second $50 million will also be fully guaranteed at signing. The third $50 million will be guaranteed for injury at signing, but convert to fully guaranteed in the waiver system at the beginning of Year 2. So, if they cut you after one year, you walk with $100 million. If they cut you after two years, you walk with $150 million. In other words, they aren’t cutting you. That’s a practically guaranteed deal.”
Agent 2: “Compromise by saying, ‘We don’t need five years fully guaranteed. We get your issues with it. He’s had injury history. Give us the three years fully guaranteed deal that Kirk Cousins got [in 2018] at $50 million per year and we’re done. Three years for $150 million fully guaranteed. You want to hedge your risk, we’re willing to gamble on ourselves.”
Agent 3: “I would ask Lamar about which approach he’s most willing to take between the Deshaun Watson or Kirk Cousins route for a fully guaranteed deal. Then I would go to the Ravens and say, ‘This is what we are preparing to do. We’re going to employ one of these two approaches and neither one is going to be good for you. So give us your best deal that gets as close as you’re willing to go. Then once that is done, depending on how close it is, I would suggest a compromise that gives everyone a win: Pay Lamar $250 million over five years — which would put him $7 million a year ahead of Watson [in average per year] — and then put the second-biggest guarantees [in league] history on the table in terms of guarantees at signing and practical guarantees. If both sides can meet at that point, Lamar walks away with what amounts to the second-biggest guarantees in history and the Ravens managed some of their risk by not guaranteeing the entire thing.
“Everybody gets something, but nobody gets everything.”